Today is one of those days that it would be nice to just leave out some parts of Scripture, right? There, I said it. For some of us, these stories about the pain and brokenness of family life are a little bit too real. But we’re not here to escape life—this is where we learn about how life is best lived. God didn’t wait to enter the world as a human until everyone in the world became perfect and we got our lives together and there were no more problems.
And because Jesus lived, that doesn’t mean suffering was ended forever. We live in a world—just as Jesus did—where divorce exists, where suffering happens, where relationships are broken and where families are split apart for many and various reasons. But because we trust in Jesus, we have hope for redemption. So let’s look at the gospel lesson and see what’s going on, because as usual, there is more going on than simply what we see on the surface.
The story begins with a question by the Pharisees, and what they’re asking Jesus is one of the popular line-in-the-sand debate questions of their day. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The law includes the provision for a man to write a certificate of dismissal to divorce his wife, which would allow the woman to be remarried.
This made perfect sense in their Jewish context, since men were the ones who married and women the ones who were married, and a man could divorce his wife while a woman could only be divorced. Women were simply the property or the responsibility of the men in their lives. A Jewish woman could not initiate a divorce; it was the men who made the decisions.
If a woman could not provide a child for a man, he could seek out another woman, and plenty of our heroes of the faith had multiple wives or concubines to produce children—think of Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon. It was seen as an act of kindness and mercy for a man to produce a written certificate of dismissal to divorce his wife, because that would allow her to be remarried, since a woman could not provide for herself but needed to live in a man’s household in order to survive.
Among these religious scholars of the day, some followed a teacher of the law named Rabbi Hillel, who taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Another school of thought following the teaching of Rabbi Shammai allowed for divorce only in the case of adultery. In this story, the Pharisees want to know where Jesus stands, so they ask about the law, but instead of saying yes or no, Jesus answers with another question, about Moses.
Jesus allows that the law about divorce was written on account of human shortcomings, but this is far from the way God created the world. Jesus appeals not to God’s law, but to God’s will, going all the way back to the story of creation. Men and women were created to be helpers to one another—the Hebrew word used in the creation story is kenegdo, which means helper. Elsewhere in Hebrew literature, that same word is used to describe God, as a helper of humanity.
Furthermore, the man and woman who are married become one flesh, and it is God who has joined them together. It is not easy to separate what has been joined together, and where it seems that Jesus allows for divorce, it is certainly presented as less-than-ideal, falling far short of God’s intention for creation. Jesus does not accept the premise that we live in a man’s world. On which day did God create patriarchy, anyway? (I’m not convinced that it was God who invented patriarchy.)
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus continues this conversation with his disciples, taking the law about divorce even further than even the Pharisees would have. Jesus is talking about adultery, and what does that even have to do with divorce? Not all divorce is a result of adultery or infidelity. What’s the big deal about adultery?
First of all, adultery was understood as something only a woman could do against the man to whom she belonged, whether her husband or her father, depending who was responsible for her. If a woman were violated by rape, that’s damage to property—the expectation would be for the rapist to pay the family or the husband of the woman. But if what happens is adultery, that is evidence of the woman’s straying, and the man who is responsible for her—her father if she is unmarried and her husband if she is married—decides what punishment there should be, whether punishment for the woman or for the man also.
For people living in antiquity, adultery is more than damage to property—it is potential damage to the ancestral heritage. For ancient Israel, having legitimate children was the way to assure the continuity of the family, and adultery was seen as an assault on the family line, displeasing the ancestors. Think of all the times the title “Son of…” is used in Hebrew Scripture—it is really important to know who your family is. Marriage and family were the primary means of ensuring economic stability and social privileges, which is why adultery is so threatening.
So if adultery is such a big deal, it’s essential then to understand exactly what constitutes adultery. The law says that a married or engaged woman has committed adultery if she has participated in sexual relations with anyone other than her husband, and it is the husband of that woman who decides the fate of both the woman and her lover: the woman could be dismissed through divorce or both parties could be executed. Now, a married man engaging in sexual relations outside of the marriage covenant—that behavior is criticized and frowned upon, but his actions are not punishable by law.
Jesus recognizes the disparity in this arrangement and equalizes it by holding both parties responsible. Matt Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, points out that, for Jesus, women are not passive objects where marriage is concerned, but Jesus gives women a place of equality in the marriage relationship. Holding an adulterous man responsible as having committed adultery against a woman is far different from the understanding that an adulterous man has committed a crime against another man, endangering his property. Jesus says the sin is also against the woman herself—the sin concerns violating the accountability to one’s own partner.
It’s worth noting where this whole conversation with Jesus and his disciples is happening: in a house, a place for a family. And if we’re talking about adultery or divorce, we’re talking about relationships, and how the behavior of men and women affects their families—their children, their parents, as well as their siblings and distant relatives. In the culture of Jesus, and in plenty of cultures around the world right now, marriage is not so much about individuals choosing one another as much as families coming together through marriage.
Karoline Lewis, also a professor at Luther Seminary, sees this teaching in Mark’s gospel as fitting in with Mark’s understanding of the kingdom of God as a place to welcome those people who live on the edges of humanity, those who are cast out and marginalized. Lewis writes, “The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like.” Lewis says that in Jesus Christ, God is establishing a relationship with humanity, essentially saying, “Nothing can separate us any longer.”
After all of this bad news of broken relationships, here’s where the good news has snuck in. Our Lutheran sensibility encourages us to seek where the law and the gospel are at work—the law is what God tells us to do for ourselves and for each other, whereas the gospel is what God promises to do for us. On our own, we cannot succeed in fulfilling every part of the law, but God’s promise of grace in Jesus Christ is what saves us.
This is not to say that the law is useless or without purpose, or that it doesn’t really apply to us. The law exists to guide us in relationships and help us to avoid the pain of hurting one another, among many other reasons. But even when we do fall short of the expectations of the law, even when we do hurt one another or hurt ourselves, we are never outside the reach of grace in Jesus Christ.
That’s why this is good news for all of us sinners—who are also saints—because we may imagine ourselves very far away from grace, marginalized for whatever reason. We are left out because we are divorced or single; we are left out because we are very old or very young; we are left out because we are queer.
As it turns out, this teaching about divorce and adultery isn’t just about people who are married or who live with nuclear families—this teaching is for blended families, for those who have been widowed, for those who are single, for gay couples, and also for children. Because that’s where this story ends up: with children, which is interesting in light of Israel’s historic understanding about the importance of children as heirs to carry on the family name.
Jesus, who—let’s not forget—did not marry and had no biological children, might not have any kind of credibility to talk about marriage or family in the traditional sense. So is there some new kind of family being created here—a new family in the reign of God?
The disciples may have thought the kingdom of God was about following God’s law, and they want to keep Jesus to themselves so they can learn more about the specifics. For these disciples, the children, who are being brought to Jesus for a blessing, are irrelevant.
But Jesus centers the marginalized. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the reign of God belongs.” The reign of God belongs to the ones who don’t deserve it, who don’t necessarily bring themselves into it but are brought to it. The reign of God belongs to the ones who can’t even explain what’s going on, but who receive it with joy and with thanksgiving. These are the ones who are taken into Jesus’s arms and who are blessed by him. Without exception, all of us need to be brought into the arms of Jesus to be blessed.
And isn’t that really why we’re here? We know that in our lives we cannot avoid suffering, but in Jesus, we see that God has suffered, too, in the pain of death. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as today Josie will be, and as we receive new members to this congregation. In the sacrament of baptism, God creates a new family where no one is left out, and in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are fed by the body and blood of Jesus. We are brought into the arms of Jesus and we are healed, and this becomes a sign of healing for a suffering world. This welcome, this grace, this healing is a story that begs to be told.
Kinda like when you hear that the gospel lesson is about divorce and adultery and you just know you’re about to get clobbered…but it turns out, there’s good news, after all. And there’s room for you in this family, too. Thanks be to God.